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​​​​​​Ninth graders in Kristin Hayes-Leite’s world history ​class at Narragansett High School.​

​Kristin Hayes-Leite

​Alumna Kristin Hayes-Leite, a social studies teacher at Narragansett High School, is training her students in civil discourse by helping them to find common ground.

Civil discourse is a skill that seems to be in decline in our current political climate. Airing your opinion on a social or political issue could easily result in a hostile backlash. Feeling threatened or cornered, you may then lash back in turn. Add to this the public spectacle of playing all of this out in the news or on social media and you can see why civil discourse is fast becoming a lost art.

“I think we make a lot of assumptions about people because they belong to a certain political party or vote a certain way or support a certain personality or watch a certain news channel,” said Hayes-Leite, M.A.T. ’01, M.Ed. ’10. “If we can look beyond political parties and personalities, if we can get beyond the labels and look at values, I think we would find commonalities.” 

Her protocol consists of students pair​ing up and discussing a controversial issue only they’re not allowed to disagree with one another. Instead they are to find a commonality between their two beliefs, even if they have completely opposing views.

First she prepares her students intellectually to engage in a well-grounded interchange by learning the U.S. Constitution and the nature of their democracy. They then research a range of controversial topics from abortion to border security and decide where they stand on these issues.

In class, a large circle is formed consisting of pairs of students facing each other. The first student expresses their stance on an issue while the second student actively listens. 

The first student might say, “I think it’s appropriate for NFL players to protest by taking a knee because the right to protest is a First Amendment right.” The second student would then state, “What I heard you say…” and repeat what they heard.

The point, Hayes-Leite said, is to learn to listen without judgment, to listen in order to understand. She asks the listeners to give nonverbal cues to show that they are listening, such as maintaining eye contact and nodding. The person who is speaking is asked not to speak to persuade but to speak simply to express their view.

“The final step is for both students to find common ground – something they can both agree on,” said Hayes-Leite. “While they may disagree on taking a knee at an NFL game, they may both agree that a person has the right to protest what they think is wrong.”

Hayes-Leite emphasized that in Common Ground, the process ​is more important than winning someone over to your side. If students can learn to express their views without fear of attack, and if they can learn to actively listen to a viewpoint that is not their own, then the discourse has been a success.

RIC Assistant Professor of Psychology Traci Weinstein noted that Hayes-Leite’s protocol is a form of social/emotional learning.

“Social/emotional learning was largely developed for K-12 students and has huge psychological benefits,” she said. “It incorporates critical thinking skills, such as the ability to be objective, and it teaches us how to manage our emotions and to empathize with others. Social/emotional learning is a muscle that we should build early and exercise regularly.”

Weinstein teaches social/emotional learning in her college courses at Rhode Island College. She noted, how people in our country are struggling with this skill. “They live in their own political or social bubbles and don’t know how to listen – or simply don’t want to listen – to anyone outside that bubble,” she said.

An antidote to tribalism, she said, would be to attend a meeting where you are the only male or female, the only LGBTQ+ individual, the only rich or poor person. In other words, learn from people who are different from you. “The more interaction you have outside your own group,” said Weinstein, “the more you’ll be able to expand your thinking.”

Last year RIC alum​na Mia Palombo ’18 engaged in student-teaching in Hayes-Leite’s class. This year she is a full-time social studies teacher in her own classroom at Blackstone Valley Prep Academy​, a middle school. In her class she teaches her students the importance of working through conflict by thoroughly understanding both sides of an issue. They do this through role play. This year she asked her students to research a religion different from their own and then to pair up with a classmate and share that religion with their partner. 

“Most of my students have a Christian background,” she said, “however, I also have a few Muslim students and I had a Hindu student earlier in the year. So a student who is, say, Christian and believes in one god had to take on the role of a Hindu who believes in many gods. They shared how their religions differed and they shared something their two religions had in common. A Hindu and Christian found that they both believed in one god above all other gods.”

The capstone project will examine current conflicts between Christians, Muslims and Jews in the Middle East. “The idea is that you don’t know someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes, until you’ve looked at how they see the world,” Palombo said​.

“I want my students to be global citizens, not just citizens of our state or citizens of our nation, but citizens of the world. In this day and age, we are so globally connected that everything that happens in another country will, in some way, affect their lives. My goal is to open their eyes to what’s happening around the world and to supply them with the tools they’ll need to solve the issues of the future,” she said.

Hopefully, with the help of these teachers, tomorrow's leaders will not only be well-informed, they will have entirely different rules of engagement in resolving conflict. Communication will be unimpeded by vast differences for they will have recognized that we have far more in common than we think.​